Seeing Hope, Even in North Korea

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When Chris Rice, director of the Center for Reconciliation, spent eight days in North Korea this past November, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream. Growing up in South Korea in the 1970s, Rice’s views of North Korea were colored by the pain of South Korean families divided from loved ones, the aftermath of the Korean war and the bitter political hostilities of the time, reports of breathtaking mountains, and the lack of any opportunity to engage with North Koreans.

For Rice, a visit to North Korea meant a chance not only to see the country that has been closed to most visitors, but also to experience simple moments of human connection in a country he calls “a place of deep darkness with hints of light breaking through.”

With Duke University’s ongoing efforts to increase global engagement, the visit also presented an opportunity for the Center for Reconciliation to explore issues in East Asia as part of its expanding international vision for reconciliation.

Rice accompanied a team from Christian Friends of Korea (CFK), which supports relief and development efforts inside the country, including food, medicine, medical equipment, and other assistance to hospitals and tuberculosis clinics in North Korea. CFK is one of a handful of U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the North Korean government allows to work within its borders.

In a presentation co-sponsored by the Internationally Minded People of Faith student group, Asian Theology Group, and the Center for Reconciliation, Rice spoke of images from his visit: empty four-lane highways and scenes of material deprivation.

He also noted that North Korea has propagated a particular theology: Kim Il Sung (Great Leader) and his son, Kim Jong IL (Dear Leader) seem omnipresent through statues, monuments, and portraits. Their pictures are on pins that nearly everyone in the country wears. Father and son also provide a source of literal light—in a country that often falls almost completely dark at nightfall, the monuments and portraits of the leaders are continually kept brightly illuminated.

Despite the pervasive darkness and poverty, Rice saw glimpses of hope. He described the gracious hospitality offered to their team, as well as the excellence of long-term collaborative work between the NGO and their North Korean colleagues, work that was unimaginable a decade ago. In one rural area, soldiers from the North Korean military cooperated with local villagers to prepare for a clean water system provided by the NGO to be installed.

During his time traveling in the country, Rice grew to see the people he journeyed with less as North Koreans and more as fellow human beings filled with yearning.

“God is always planting seeds of hope,” Rice said, “but you have to look harder in some places than others.”